TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The Florida Highway Patrol has been ordered to reinstate a trooper who was fired after he said he followed an unwritten agency policy of issuing less-expensive tickets to two state lawmakers during stops for speeding.
However, while trooper Charles Swindle intends to return to work, his attorney still plans to appeal because the order includes a 120-hour suspension.
"This is a victory in wolf's clothing," said Sidney Matthew, Swindle's attorney. "He was found guilty of just cause for discipline for following an established, unwritten policy of the department. How could you be guilty of anything by following the rules that we established were in existence?"
The three-member Florida Public Employees Relations Commission on Friday accepted the recommendation of hearing officer Gregg Morton that Swindle, 30 of Perry, get his job back and receive the equivalent of a three-week suspension for issuing nonmoving violations --- knowing the paperwork contained false information --- to state Reps. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, and Mike Clelland, D-Lake Mary. The commission also said Swindle will receive back pay, though the amount must still be determined. The back pay would not include the 120-hour suspension.
The FHP has denied that such an unwritten policy has existed. However, Morton noted the unwritten agency policy of providing professional courtesy to state legislators in his June 10 recommendation.
"I believe Trooper Swindle was in a no-win situation having pulled over two legislators for speeding," Morton wrote. "In attempting to make a quick decision to resolve the situation, he made a mistake in his method of showing leniency in accordance with the agency's unwritten policy of professional courtesy toward legislators."
Leslie Palmer, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, which oversees the FHP, said Friday the agency wasn't prepared to comment as officials had yet to review the order.
Swindle could be blocked from returning to work if the state appeals the order.
Matthew said unless he can clear Swindle's name, the trooper could again face the prospect of losing his job if another disciplinary action occurred.
"If he does any petty thing wrong they can fire him in a New York minute because he's just been found guilty of just cause for discipline and now anything else would be a second offense," Matthew said. "This could lead to more discipline problems down the road. He was following an unwritten rule that the agency is the only one that doesn't realize exists."
Swindle, who has been working as a part-time emergency management technician, was fired March 15 following a complaint by McBurney.
The state argued that Swindle was fired because he signed tickets issued in November 2012 to McBurney and Clelland that contained false information.
The tickets were for failure to have proper proof of insurance. Clelland also was ticketed for not having proof of registration.
The nonmoving violations took the place of more-costly speeding tickets, as both lawmakers had been reportedly pulled over for traveling 87 mph. McBurney disputed he was traveling that speed.
Matthew said the state didn't present any testimony to show Swindle was aware either legislator had the paperwork.
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